Dear Artist,

In 1926 a young man by the name of Al Hirschfeld sketched a caricature of an actor on a theatre program while attending a New York performance. A friend convinced him to copy it onto a clean sheet of paper and submit it to a newspaper. Thus was born one of the great caricaturists — more than 7,000 published drawings and a career that lasted until his death at age 99 in 2003. Hirschfeld, who studied art in Paris and New York, had noted how sunlight bleached out colour and turned people into what he called “walking line drawings.” He later recalled how he became “enchanted with line” and began to use a unique style of simple, flowing lines to capture a personality or a performance.


“Ella Fitzgerald”
drawing by Al Hirschfeld (1903-2003)

Hirschfeld’s method of working was to “find” the essential characteristics of a face, body language or gesture by trial and error with a pencil. Only when he thought it to be right did he finish in ink. It’s amazing, when you think of it — you can pick a familiar face out of a crowd, even after many years. Something distinguishes every face — it’s actually surprising there aren’t more look-alikes. The point is, it’s often difficult to distinguish just what that difference is. Hirschfeld knew that his job was to find that elusive something — simply, directly.



“Jerry Garcia”
drawing by Al Hirschfeld

The system of caricature is to take prominent, unique characteristics and emphasize them. There’s a valuable tip for fine artists that lies in this process. Artists ought to look at their subject matter and attempt to extract a greater truth from what is seen. Beauty more beautiful, colour more colourful, gesture more gestural, elegance more elegant, solidity more solid, drama more dramatic. A wonky building can be made more wonky, a struggling tree more overwhelmed with struggle, a sad-faced person more excruciatingly sad.

Marquee lights across Broadway dimmed in Hirschfeld’s memory after word spread that he had died in his sleep. Shortly afterward, the Martin Beck Theatre on 45th Street was renamed the Al Hirschfeld Theatre. You can see his caricature of himself in lights on the marquee.


drawing by Al Hirschfeld

Best regards,


PS: “Life isn’t a science. We make it up as we go.” (Al Hirschfeld, 1903-2003)

Esoterica: When his daughter Nina was born in 1945 he secretly wove her name into a few drawings as a celebration of her birth. After a while the public demanded that he keep it up, and he did. Many drawings have “Nina” buried in a curl of hair, the fold of a dress, the crook of an arm. Al Hirschfeld discovered it, and you can profit by it if you choose — the public eats up insider personality indulgences.

This letter was originally published as “Caricature” on March 12, 2004.


Download the new audio book, The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“You learn your limitations and then you try to work within them.” (Al Hirschfeld)



  1. Hirschfeld was fascinating to me as a kid!!! I used to love finding Nina in his drawings. Magic! No wonder I grew up to be a CARICATURE ARTIST! I also hid my name for years in my fine art paintings. I still need to refine my work though. He is definitely the MASTER!!

  2. I believe it was Matisse who said ”A line is a dot that went for a walk!” Even though paintings usually end up being about shapes , without good lines as bone structure, they are like cream puffs – pretty, but not good for much!

    Hirshfeld was a master at a ‘conversational’ line and could tell a novel with a few strokes.

  3. Simplicity was his perfection.
    I wallow in tones.
    Light and dark shading, with lots of wiping away to lighten, then apply more deep darks, and suddenly the shape emerges. It is an approach that I have found works well for beginners and experienced artists wanting to simplify. No color allowed until those tones on a canvas are where you want them. Composition shouts when doing this, “fix this!”, detail cries, “wait for me!”.

  4. Marjorie Ewell on

    I love this article. I have collected political cartoons from Newspapers for many years and have purchased every book I ever found on caricatures. Robert’s article sums up everything you need to know about how to do one and seeing Hirschfeld’s drawings is truly inspiring. Thank you for sharing this article from the past.

  5. Val I Vanorden on

    Hirschfields work reminds me of Chinese Sumei painting…with an economy of ink bringing out gesture, life, circumstance.

  6. I like to think of Hirshfield and Saul Steinberg (1914-1999) together. Different lines. Different intentions. Both mastered complexity with simplicity, in New York yet.

  7. Thank you for reaching out to all your subscribers. I may not always reply , but I always find something in the message to contemplate about..and it’s always enlightening!!

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Featured Workshop

featured-workshop 32993
to the Wall
oil on canvas
24 x 30 inches, 2017

Featured Artist

My aim as a painter is to bring to life a slice of the world as I experience it. Light, color and form are my vocabulary.


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